Thursday, April 16, 2009

FOIA update

FOIA responses take forever. 

According to my records, I've filed well over 20 requests to date.  I'm getting a little better at the wording and procedural issues that pop up in writing these letters. I've now got my first administrative appeal under my belt. I haven't filed a Mandatory Declassification Review yet or requested a Vaughn Index so there's still lots of room for new experiences. And who knows, maybe one day, a request will go to court.

So, let's see...I filed four FOIA requests with CENTCOM back in February of 2008. Still waiting. One with the State Department from 2007 which they actually contacted me about two months ago to say was on its way. It hasn't arrived yet. The appeal with the National Security Agency is still outstanding - while I'm not optimistic on that one, I did expect to get the rejection almost immediately. Not sure what's up with that. A few more FOIA requests outstanding with CENTCOM - one in particular that I hope they'll be forthcoming about. And a new one that I haven't yet received a response letter confirming its receipt and assigning a case number.

So while we wait...wanna learn a little about how to file an FOIA request?

A good place to start is the Department of Justice website page on the Freedom of Information Act. It provides a broad overview and is written in fairly simple and easy to understand language. They have a page, FOIA Post, that includes summaries of recent rulings that effect the FOIA. Good idea to look these over in case a recent ruling might increase the potential for a federal agency to release the information you seek.

After filing the administrative appeal with the NSA, one of the things I learned was the importance of writing an FOIA request with the view towards possibly pursuing information in court. Now, this doesn't mean you have to fill your request with legalese, but it does mean you want to leave a trail of bread crumbs that lead to the information you seek. For example, if you're requesting information that was mentioned in say a White House memo freely distributed to the public, cite and include the memo with your request.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University is a great resource for information regarding FOIA requests that bump up against National Security, otherwise known as Exemptions 1 and 3 of the FOIA and the lovely Glomar response (neither confirm nor deny the existence nor non-existence...) They have a new PDF booklet available online (includes information on Mandatory Declassification Reviews):
A National Security Archive Guide
Written by Kristin Adair and Catherine Nielsen
Edited by Meredith Fuchs, Yvette M. Chin, Malcolm Byrne and Tom Blanton
January 29, 2009
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is another great resource. They have an entire area of their website dedicated to Freedom of the Press Resources including an FOIA letter generator. Just plug in some information and it will spit out a letter for you.

And since I brought it up, the National Security Agency also has an area of its website devoted to the FOIA including their version of a handbook - which is really just basic contact information on where to send your request. By the way, NSA isn't all cloaks and daggers. They have aliens too! The NSA has one section devoted to FOIA requests for UFO's under their Declassification Initiatives.

The Department of Defense website for FOIA is the Requester Service Center. They have a handbook which includes a list of their Components and Commands with whom to file an FOIA request. Some times the tricky part with the Department of Defense is just figuring out who to file with.

Well, that's it for now. Back to waiting for the mail...

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